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Friday, 01 August 2014

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Should Cumbria sell its water to the drought-hit south?

Here is the long term weather forecast for the UK: in Cumbria there will be steady rainfall throughout the year, except in autumn and possibly winter, when we will experience flooding.

Thirlmere photo
Thirlmere

Lighter rainfall will continue down across the north west of the country and there won’t be any rain at all in the south and south east. Ever.

Wednesday was typical: some areas of the county were put on flood alert, but as the torrential rain moved south, it petered out and there was hardly any rainfall south and east of Watford later in the day.

Not good is it? But there could be a silver lining to the clouds that cloak Cumbria’s fells and fields.

When it rains, it could rain pennies from heaven.

We could actually sell some of the stuff that keeps falling so often from the sky.

The prospect of hosepipe bans in the coming weeks, rather than months, looms for parts of England as drought was officially declared in the south east.

The region joined parts of eastern England which have been drought-afflicted since last summer, as two dry winters left some rivers and groundwater supplies at levels lower than 1976.

The drought has been declared by the Government after the Environment Department (Defra) convened a summit of water companies, farmers and wildlife groups earlier this week to discuss potential water shortages.

Following the meeting, companies in the south east warned that water restrictions such as hosepipe bans may be needed to ensure essential public supplies are maintained throughout the summer.

And there were calls for householders to save water, with people being urged not to spend more than four minutes in the shower.

Ahead of the drought meeting, London mayor Boris Johnson asked why we couldn’t use gravity to “bring surplus rain from the mountains to irrigate and refresh the breadbasket of the country in the south and east.”

It may sound like a pie in the sky idea, but it has been seriously discussed by governments in the past.

We have a nationwide electricity grid – why not one for that other utility we can’t live without: water.

In 1973, the Water Resources Board, a government agency, produced a report that detailed all kinds of infrastructure to aid the trickle-down: building freshwater storage barrages in the Ouse Wash and Morecambe Bay, using canals to move water from north to south, extending reservoirs and building new aqueducts and tunnels between river basins.

 

In 2006, the Environment Agency returned to the question.

Pumping water down from the northern Pennines to London could be done, it agreed, but it would cost between five and eight times more than developing the water system in and around the south-east.

Drought-hit areas of the UK is not a problem that will get better in years to come – quite the opposite.

Drought restrictions in the south of the country are becoming an annual occurrence.

Added to that, a recent government report predicted that the population of England will rise by just under 10 million by 2035 – and most of those people will be in the water-stressed south and east of the country.

We have supplied water to Manchester from Haweswater and Thirlmere since the Industrial Revolution, why not extend that system further south?

A spokesman for Cumbria’s water supplier United Utilities explains: “Cumbria is no stranger to sharing its water within the wider region.

“Supplies have been sent to other parts of the north west for more than 100 years.

“To this day, about 35 per cent of the North West's water comes from our reservoirs at Haweswater and Thirlmere – transported by gravity through the vast Haweswater and Thirlmere aqueducts.

“About half a million tonnes of water each day is transported from Hawsewater and Thirlmere to southern Cumbria, Manchester and parts of Lancashire.

“When customers in Manchester, and parts of Lancashire turn on their taps, the chances are, the water started out in Cumbria – although they may not know it.”

Cumbria County Council leader Eddie Martin questions: “We do have to ask why we don’t have a water grid throughout the whole of the UK.

“If we can have an electricity grid, surely over 10 or 20 or 30 years we should be constructing a national water grid to move it around the country?”

The work in transferring the water would be done by the region’s water company, United Utilities and the cost would be substantial – so expensive that it would have to carry some form of government subsidy.

But if wind turbines and nuclear plants can be subsidised through taxes to provide our energy, why can’t we do the same to make sure the whole of the country is supplied with water?

“Given the relative riches in London, perhaps we should be more like a Gulf state and come to terms with the mayor on a price per litre for water,” says Tim Knowles, the county council’s cabinet member for the environment and transport.

“If we could ship stuff round from the port of Workington in tankers and it does not damage our ecology we could look at it.

“We already supply the north of England, but the most important thing is to protect our environment and ecology.

“The fact that London can’t manage its own problems is not our problem.

“As Cumbrians we are open to anything as long as it is not detrimental to us,” adds the councillor for Cleator Moor and Frizington.

But could the county claim any sort of fee?

Would United Utilities be willing to share any profit by cutting bills or splitting the fee?

Eddie Martin asks a simple question: “They are very welcome to our splendid water, but what is in it for Cumbria? How do we get a payment for our water?

“How can we capitalise on the opportunity? If we were exporting anything else, we would demand a charge.

“Maybe our water charges could be reduced.”

Paul Nuttall of UKIP, one of the MEPs for the north west, adds: “I’m all for setting up a national grid and pumping water down to the south.

“If we have an excess of water, why not pump it round the country? We are a nation and should share and share alike.

“In return, we could get more funding for Cumbria County Council.”

Mr Knowles feels that the county should be properly paid for its resources: “We do not get a good return on a lot of things we provide to the country as a whole.

“I’m thinking of the impact of electric generation, nuclear services, many things we do and I don’t know whether we are fairly recompensed.”

But Chris Davies, LibDem MEP for the north west, says we should be looking at ways of saving a precious natural resource, rather than investigate expensive ways of transferring it round the country.

“People say we send water down to Manchester, why not carry on pumping it further south, but it is not as easy as you think.

“It is like energy, rather than building expensive new power stations, we should be looking at ways of conserving and cutting down what we already use.

“Cutting down excessive water use should be regarded as a priority.

“We take water for granted in a way that it is not in many parts of the world.

“I recognise the south and south east do have serious problems and the highest growth rate of population, but I can see problems of us spending money on a distribution system and then the north saying ‘we don’t want to part with it’ in times when we’re affected.”

It has been known for Cumbria to fall victim to the dreaded ‘D’ word as well.

Last October, United Utilities was fined £32,000 at West Allerdale Magistrates Court after water levels in the River Cocker dropped during the 2010 drought.

The Environment Agency took the enforcement action saying the reduction in flow “had the potential to place the river ecology under additional stress”.

Mr Knowles adds: “We must be sure that whatever help we may give in the future does not compromise our water resources and the ecology and environment of Cumbria.”

In a statement, United Utilities added: “The drought conditions in southern areas of the UK highlight the importance of the whole water industry working together to tackle water scarcity, and looking at ways of increasing connectivity between regions.

“We are committed to this principle, and continue to liaise with government and other water companies to look at how we can plan for the long-term impacts of climate change.

“In the short term, however, the lack of suitable water transport networks would make it impractical to move water from Cumbria to drought hit areas in the south of the country.”

Have your say

Having lived in kent for 7yrs i can definatly say without doubt we should be selling it, it is a natural asset to cumbria and the north and is ours.People need to realise that the south has been conned for many years by their water authoritys who have squandered oppotunities to resolve the problem prefering greed and profits,it does not take a scientist to work out that if you have a resovoir in the south that can feed 100,000 propertys you do not build another 100,000 houses as well for the same supply,that is what is happening but you must realise that every property that is built has to pay a fee to be connected to the water grid that money is pure profit the more houses they build the more profit they make,none of this has been put back into building new resovoirs so it stands to reason eventually they will run dry,if you want to sit on your backsides and let the southern water companys pressurise the goverment to allow the lakes in the north to feed their supply well fool you,but don't forget the more houses that are built the more profit they gain off our water so charge them and use the money to upgrade our systems,it is time the north realised the south wants it all at the expence of the north,the goverment should pass law that every new estate with over 100 propertys must have its own water supply via resovoirs or we will all go dry.

Posted by James O on 2 March 2012 at 12:45

Slow on the uptake arnt we.with the climate changes we,ll still get the lions share of the wet stuff.With the expantion of our bigger southern cities,why dont we sell our best comoderty thenbuild a newhydro ressoviour. Well win handsdown.

Posted by yosser on 24 February 2012 at 19:08

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